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Spyro Gyra in concert
|Origin||Buffalo, New York, United States|
|Labels||Heads Up (2001–2010)|
Spyro Gyra (pron.: //) is an American jazz fusion band, that was originally formed in the mid-1970s in Buffalo, New York, United States. With over 30 albums released and 10 million copies sold, they are among the most prolific as well as commercially successful groups of the genre. Their singles include "Shaker Song" and "Morning Dance" (1979).
Their music, which has been influential in the development of smooth jazz and is a staple on the numerous smooth jazz radio stations nationwide, combines jazz with elements of R&B, funk and pop music. Generally considered to be more "jazz" than "smooth", Spyro Gyra has been praised for their skilled instrumentalists and for their live performances, which average about 100 per year.
With the exception of alto saxophonist, songwriter and founding bandleader Jay Beckenstein and keyboardist Tom Schuman, the personnel has changed over time, as well as between the studio and the live stage. Today, guitarist Julio Fernandez is also in his third decade with the band.
The album A Foreign Affair was released on September 13, 2011 and features guest vocalists.
Appearance on the Buffalo club scene 
Spyro Gyra emerged around Jay Beckenstein and keyboardist Jeremy Wall, who had met and formed a band during their high school years. Although they headed in different directions during college—Beckenstein to the State University of New York in Buffalo and Wall to Cal Arts—they spent summers together playing outdoor concerts, and Wall moved to Buffalo soon after graduating.
Beckenstein had been working in clubs in Buffalo since his junior year of college, backing various vocalists. Wall teamed up with Beckenstein, and the two started playing instrumental music—mostly covers of R&B songs—together. The other two musicians, who were part of the nucleus, were Buffalo natives Jim Kurzdorfer on bass and Tom Walsh on drums, although many people played in those early jam gatherings. An early regular on the Tuesday Night Jazz Jam scene was Buffalo percussionist Umbopha Emile Latimer. In Beckenstein's description of the Buffalo club scene of the time:
- Not many people know it, but Buffalo was like a mini Chicago back then, with a smoking blues, soul, jazz, even rockabilly scene, of all things.
Over a year, their work evolved into Spyro Gyra. Wall has commented, that their sound was a "gutbucket of rhythmic tradition. We did simple music and esoteric stuff. It all came together, this oddball mix, until we found a middle ground, our own groove".
- Before a gig in a Buffalo club, that was called Jack Daniels, the owner twisted my arm for a band name. As a joke, I remembered the paper and said, 'Spirogyra'. He misspelled it 'Spyro Gyra', advertised it that way, and it stuck.
Breaking out of Buffalo 
As the popularity of the group increased, the band played more places around town, becoming a regular at the Tralfamadore Cafe in its original location, in a basement under a non-descript storefront on Main Street. That led to more opening slots for national acts and performances in nearby cities, Rochester and Cleveland.
There were two main guitar players, who appeared as part of the band around this time, Alfred "Fast Freddy" Rapillo (who would later go on to play for Rick James) and Rick Strauss. Tom Walsh had moved to California and the drum chair was alternately taken by Tom Duffy, Ted Reinhardt and others. Tom Schuman, who had been sitting in with the band since almost the beginning, when he was only sixteen, became a fixture in 1977 and the group had two keyboard players for a brief period until Jeremy Wall left the performing band in 1978.
The first eponymous album Spyro Gyra, self released in late 1977, reflected these personnel as well as some guests like vibraphone player Dave Samuels and percussionist Rubens Bassini, who would be part of Spyro Gyra recordings for years to come. That album attracted the attention of locally based Amherst Records, who then re-released the first album with new artwork. This debut album would go on to become one of Billboard's Top 40 Jazz Albums of 1978.
Bronx-born percussionist and drummer Gerardo Velez, who started his career with Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock and would go on to play with many other artists and most recently as a member of Chic, became a regular around this time. He would gain fame with the early fans as Spyro Gyra's "dancing percussionist".
The follow-up recording, Morning Dance (1979), financed by Amherst, made it possible to record part of the album in New York City and include more notable guests like guitarist John Tropea, bassist Will Lee, multi-instrumentalist Steve Jordan, saxophonist Michael Brecker, trumpeter and flugelhornist Randy Brecker and pianist Suzanne Ciani. In the course of recording Morning Dance drummer Eli Konikoff replaced Ted Reinhardt on drums and guitarist Freddy Rapillo returned to the group to replace Rick Strauss.
Late in 1978, prior to the release of the album, Rochester guitarist Chet Catallo replaced Freddy Rapillo in the band. The musical chairs of the revolving band membership, borne out of the jam scene beginnings of the band along with the appearance of guest musicians, set the template for the next few albums. The performing band became a standardized unit while the early recordings remained more of a collaboration of Jay Beckenstein, co-producer Richard Calandra and Jeremy Wall accompanied by some of the biggest names in the NYC jazz world.
The early albums 
The March 1979 release of Morning Dance provided the group their breakthrough on the national and international scene. Through the efforts of Infinity Records, a New York City based start-up label owned by MCA Records, the group appeared in most major cities in the United States and many jazz festivals in Europe in 1979. That album would become a platinum seller due to the Top 40 pop hit of the same name, which would be a # 1 adult contemporary (AC) single, Billboard's No. 6 AC single of 1979. The album peaked at No. 11 in the UK Albums Chart, while the single was a No. 17 success in the UK Singles Chart.
Infinity Records folded by the end of the year and Spyro Gyra's follow-up record, Catching the Sun was released on MCA Records in February 1980 to similar success. Morning Dance became Billboard's No. 3 Jazz Album of 1980 and Catching the Sun was the No. 4 jazz album of 1980. Catching the Sun peaked at No. 31 in the UK. Bass player Jim Kurzdorfer left the group in 1980 and was replaced by David Wofford. They released their next album, Carnaval, in late 1980. Both Catching the Sun and Carnaval were gold selling albums; Carnaval would become Billboard's No. 7 jazz album of 1981.
Freetime, the group's fifth album, was released in 1981 and became the # 8 Jazz Album of 1982 as well as beginning their tradition of releasing a new album every year. 1982's Incognito represented a stylistic change in their artwork and featured bassist Marcus Miller, drummer Steve Gadd, saxophonist Tom Scott, pianist Richard Tee, guitar and harmonica player Toots Thielemans and pianist Jorge Dalto as guests and would be Billboard's # 8 Jazz Album of 1983.
1983's City Kids, would be the last album using this producer centric approach, calling on famous session musicians to play in place of the full-time band members. City Kids incorporated bass player Kim Stone, who would later go on to a long career with the Rippingtons.
1984 saw the release of the live Access All Areas, which would become Billboard's # 11 Jazz Album of 1984. AAA was the first album of Jay Beckenstein's new "band-centric" approach to Spyro Gyra. It also introduced vibraphonist Dave Samuels as a full-time member of the band. Eli Konikoff and Chet Catallo left the band just prior to its release to be replaced by drummer Richie Morales and guitarist Julio Fernandez, respectively. It was this core unit, that recorded 1985's Alternating Currents, which spurred the group's mid-1980s resurgence with the hit "Shakedown". Guitarist Fernandez – along with Beckenstein and Schuman – became the third member to have a multi-decade career with the band, intermittently until the present.
Breakout, the 1986 follow-up, would be the first with percussionist Manolo Badrena as a full-time member, replacing Gerardo Velez. Badrena was a veteran of Fusion titans Weather Report and a previous guest musician on Spyro Gyra's albums. Alternating Currents (1985) and Breakout (1996) would be among the top 15 Jazz Albums in Billboard in 1986. Longtime co-producer Richard Calandra died in October 1986 of pancreatic cancer.
1987 would see another personnel change within the band as Kim Stone left the band and the bass was taken over by Roberto Vally for the Stories Without Words album. Vally would go on to play with people like Michael Franks, Bobby Caldwell, Boney James, Boz Scaggs, Arturo Sandoval and Randy Crawford.
1988's Rites Of Summer album would be the first of the band's history without a percussionist, other than the drummer. It would also be the introduction of bassist Oscar Cartaya, later to play with Herb Alpert, Jennifer Lopez, Celia Cruz, Rubén Blades, Tito Puente, Robbie Robertson and Willie Colón. Both Stories Without Words (1987) and Rites Of Summer (1988) would be among Billboard's top 15 Contemporary Jazz Albums of 1988.
Point of View would provide another turning point in 1989 for the band as Julio Fernandez left the band and was replaced by guitarist Jay Azzolina. It was also the first album in five years to have a guest musician, Roger Squitero on percussion. Julio Fernandez was also listed as a guest musician for one song.
Fast Forward] would bring another new face into the band in 1990. Percussionist Marc Quiñones would be with the band for two years and then go on to greater fame with The Allman Brothers Band. Fast Forward would be another No. 1 Contemporary Jazz Album for the band and one of Billboard's top 10 Contemporary Jazz Albums of 1990. Spyro Gyra would end the decade as Billboard's most successful jazz artist of the 1980s.
The 1990s provided the band with new challenges and a stable line-up for most of the decade. Guitarist Julio Fernandez rejoined the band for their 1991 Collection CD, a Best of... which also featured two new songs. These two new songs on Collection marked the debut of drummer Joel Rosenblatt, who had previously played with artists ranging from Michel Camilo to Pure Prairie League.
The next CD, 1992's Three Wishes marked the debut of bassist Scott Ambush and completed, what was to become the most long lived version of the band's core lineup in its history. Three Wishes was notable for its stripped down, more acoustic approach to the majority of the songs.
The next CD, Dreams Beyond Control (1993), was another about-face in the production approach, which featured a large cast of supporting players and singers. Vocalist Alex Ligertwood, of the Santana band, provided lead vocals, a first on a Spyro Gyra album. Also featured on this CD were the Tower of Power horns, Howard Levy of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, former member and now Allman Brothers band member percussionist Marc Quiñones and the NYC based No Sweat Horns. Despite being as well received as it was, this effort was swimming against the tide of the fashion made popular by the juggernaut, that was Smooth Jazz radio in the 1990s.
The group made some effort to bridge, that gap with their next release Love and Other Obsessions (1995). This release featured two more traditional Smooth Jazz type vocals with guests Deniece Williams, Barrington Henderson, Billy Cliff and a host of other backing vocalists and musicians (which now included Dave Samuels, who left the band to pursue his own Caribbean Jazz Project). The vocal tunes were an odd fit with the band's identity and this release marked the group's last flirtation with traditional R&B vocals. The instrumental "Ariana" from this album, did go on to become a No. 1 song at Smooth Jazz radio. The band's next release, Heart of the Night (1996), marked a conscious effort to produce a "themed" album of songs signifying the "moods of the night" from romantic to jumpin' at the club.
The group's last studio album for GRP, 1997's 20/20 was named for its distinction of being the band's twentieth release in twenty years. This release was notable for its jazz version of James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" and for the Spyro Gyra debut of guest trumpeter Chris Botti, who went on to a huge career as a smooth jazz bandleader.
The band's last CD for GRP was 1998's live album, Road Scholars, the title being a sly nod to the band's history of 20 plus years and thousands of shows. This album was not as big a seller as the group's studio releases, but it began a critical reappraisal of the group's place in jazz history spurred by extended versions of familiar tunes, including the 10-minute plus piano trio version of the group's first hit, "Shaker Song."
The Nineties closed out with Got the Magic (1999), a single release on Windham Hill Jazz, a new effort of the venerable new age label to expand its identity into the Smooth Jazz realm. This album featured another No. 1 song on Smooth Jazz radio, "Silk and Satin", and a jazzy vocal by Basia (Trzetrzelewska) written by trumpeter Jeff Beal and his wife Joan.
In 2001, Spyro Gyra released In Modern Times, the first of what would be seven releases on Heads Up International, then a division of Cleveland based Telarc Records. This release peaked at No. 2 on the Contemporary Jazz Chart in Billboard and also scored on Billboard's Independent Albums chart. It spawned a modest radio hit with the lushly produced "After Hours", written by Chuck Loeb.
In 2002 their former label GRP Records released The Very Best of Spyro Gyra, a somewhat misleading title as it only encompasses releases from 1988 to 1997. However, it still serves as a good introduction to the middle period of Spyro Gyra's music with fan favorites like "Breakfast at Igor's", "Para Ti Latino", "The Unknown Soldier" and a live version of "Morning Dance".
2003 would see another new studio release with Original Cinema, which was somewhat of a left turn in production values in utilizing a wealth of sequencers and drum programming.
In 2004, Spyro Gyra released The Deep End, which would peak at No. 3 on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart and at No. 26 on the same publication's Independent Albums chart. Longtime drummer Joel Rosenblatt would decide to leave the band during the making of this record, allowing for two other drummers to be featured on the album, guest Billy Kilson and the introduction of their new drummer, Ludwig Afonso. Afonso would remain with the group for two years, but would only make one more appearance on a Spyro Gyra album.
The bulk of the songs on 2006's Wrapped in a Dream, which peaked at No. 4 on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart, would feature guest drummer Josh Dion. This was the first Spyro Gyra album in over twenty years to be nominated for a Grammy. Trinidadian Bonny Bonaparte (Bonny B) makes his drums debut with the group, going on to record the next four albums with them.
Good to Go-Go, released in 2007, would be a more stripped down effort and would also introduce Bonny B's talents as a vocalist, performing a convincing dancehall patois on his own Jam Up. This CD would also go to No. 3 on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart and be nominated for a Grammy.
The group's next album would be a true departure as their only holiday themed release. A Night Before Christmas (2008) was Grammy nominated and would be their most mainstream jazz effort to date, with instrumental takes on holiday favorites and also featuring vocals from Bonny B, The Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel and Christine Ebersole on a Beckenstein original.
A Foreign Affair was released in 2011 and included Beckenstein, Schuman, Fernandez and Ambush and Bonny B, as well as guest vocalists such as Andre Beeka and Keb' Mo'. The CD debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's jazz charts. Drummer Bonny Bonaparte left the group in November 2011 and was replaced by Lee Pearson.
|Title||Year of Release||Label|
|Spyro Gyra||1978||Amherst Records|
|Morning Dance||1979||MCA Records|
|Catching the Sun||1980||MCA Records|
|City Kids||1983||MCA Records|
|Access All Areas (live)||1984||MCA Records|
|Alternating Currents||1985||MCA Records|
|Stories Without Words||1987||MCA Records|
|Rites of Summer||1988||MCA Records|
|Point Of View||1989||MCA Records|
|Dreams Beyond Control||1993||GRP|
|Love and Other Obsessions||1995||GRP|
|Heart of the Night||1996||GRP|
|Road Scholars (live)||1998||GRP|
|Got the Magic||1999||Windham Hill Jazz|
|In Modern Times||2001||Heads Up|
|Original Cinema||2003||Heads Up|
|The Deep End||2004||Heads Up|
|Wrapped in a Dream||2006||Heads Up|
|Good to Go-Go||2007||Heads Up|
|A Night Before Christmas||2008||Heads Up|
|Down the Wire||2009||Heads Up|
|A Foreign Affair||2011||Amherst Records|
Compilations/box sets 
|Title||Year of Release||Label|
|The Best of Spyro Gyra - The first ten years||1998||GRP|
|The Very Best of Spyro Gyra||2002||GRP|
Awards and nominations 
Spyro Gyra has received the following Grammy nominations:
- 1980: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "Catching the Sun"
- 1982: Best Rhythm & Blues Instrumental Performance for "Stripes"
- 1982: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "Incognito"
- 1983: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "City Kids"
- 1984: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "Access All Areas"
- 1985: Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Shakedown"
- 1985: Best Jazz Fusion Performance for "Alternating Currents"
- 2007: Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album for Wrapped in a Dream
- 2008: Best Pop Instrumental Performance for "Simple Pleasures" from Good to Go-Go
- 2008: Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album for Good to Go-Go
- 2009: Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album for "A Night Before Christmas"
- 2010: Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album for "Down The Wire"
Spyro Gyra was awarded the George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards in 2007.